How & why our wine preferences change
Think back to when you first started drinking wine - what was your preferred wine style then? My guess is something different from your current favourite style of wine. For me personally I suspect it was something like a medium-dry German white wine a la Blue Nun or a rustic Chianti from a raffia-covered bottle but that probably says more about my age and wallet than about my taste in wine. Whatever that first glass was, it certainly wasn’t my wine epiphany which came much later. But it does follow the start to most people’s wine journey, a trajectory which starts or is perceived to start with sweeter, lighter styles of wine, moves on to bigger, bolder wines and ends up with lighter, more elegant wines. But is this journey to a wider, more sophisticated range of wines a result of a change in our sense of taste as we get older – or is there more to it than that?
Our tastes in food certainly change. It’s a standing joke in my family whenever anyone eats a banana that I pull a face of disgust and everyone chants “…but you used to love bananas…”. Personally I can’t remember eating them as a child but as I now can’t abide the smell, taste or texture of the darned things, it’s hard to imagine that I ever used to eat them let alone love them. But I will concede that it is possible because tastes do change as we age. I never used to be bothered about chocolate but I do now enjoy a piece every now and then. Similarly I used to dislike Sauvignon Blanc but now appreciate a glass of (really well-made) Sauvignon. Here’s my somewhat light-hearted look at how and why our tastes in wine change.
How we taste wine (& other things)
Going back to basics, when we taste anything, we pick up the five basic taste characteristics - sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami - via gustatory or taste receptors, the taste buds. Messages are sent to our brains to help us detect these characteristics but it is commonly agreed that the sense of smell is actually more important for our ability to taste than our sense of taste. In fact it is only when our sense of smell is also used, via olfactory receptors in our noses, that we are able to detect specific food flavours like strawberry, blackcurrant, chocolate etc. Part of the joy of tasting good wine is swirling and sniffing the aromas.
The texture and temperature of food and wine, our hormones, memories and emotions also play a part in our ability to determine flavours. Our sense of smell in particular also helps recall memories. For example you can improve your wine-tasting skills by practice, practice, practice – and that’s not just an excuse to drink more. The wider range of wines that you taste, the better you become at distinguishing and recalling tastes and flavours.
Some people smell better than others – as some people are more sensitive to tastes than others – see my blogpost on supertasters. Some people for example are very sensitive to the compound behind corked wine, TCA; others can’t smell it at all. In order to be able to smell aromas in wine, swirling the wine in your glass. This helps the aromas rise to meet your olfactory receptors but also releases aromas as the air interacts with the wine.
How our sense of taste in wine can change
Several research projects have been undertaken to determine how our tastes in wine change, most recently by Sonoma State University*. They devised an unscientifically proven wine palate life cycle which suggests 4 stages of taste preferences in wine:
- a preference for medium dry or medium sweet white and rosé wines such as Riesling, Muscat, Prosecco
- dry white and rosé wines like Sauvignon Blanc and softer, lighter red wines like Merlot and Pinot Noir
- distinctive, more aromatic white varietals like Gruner Veltliner and Torrontes and bolder reds like Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon
- more distinctive wines like Barolo, Burgundies and dry Riesling.
They tested this model with a survey which showed that 69% of participants said that their tastes in wine had changed over time – young adults were as likely as older participants to report a change – with 54% of participants reporting semi-sweet and sweet white and rosé wines as their initial preferred style and 61% giving their current preferred style as dry reds and slightly sweet red wines (the latter a relatively new category popular in the US where the survey took place). By the way this study was carried out in 2018 so interesting I think to see semi-sweet and sweet wines so high so recently.
Of the 31% of respondent who reported no change in preference a “statistically significant percentage” were sweet and semi-sweet wine drinkers.
Why our sense of taste changes
What is the main reason or reasons for wine preferences changing over time for most people?
Age seems to play a large part. We are born with 10,000 taste buds all over our mouths (not just on our tongues) and these regenerate every 10 to 14 days although apparently our ability to detect aromas develops and plateaus when we are still children. As we age the regeneration of our taste buds slows down and in fact some of the taste buds don’t grow back so we end up with fewer than we used to have. This can happen in our fifties and even earlier especially for women. In addition our taste buds shrink as we get older.
If that’s not bad enough our sense of smell deteriorates as we get older too although it is thought at a later age than our sense of taste, from our sixties, and sadly the deterioration cannot be reversed. Some even argue that the deterioration starts at a much earlier age. And as a triple whammy saliva production also reduces as we get older – and saliva helps transmit substance we eat or drink to the taste receptors but is also thought to stimulate our taste buds.
Just as malfunction of our salivary glands can impact on our ability to taste wine, many illnesses can have the same effect – we all know that Covid-19 can affect our sense of smell and / or taste but even the common cold and some allergies can do the same. Other more serious illnesses including disorders of the nervous system can cause you to lose your ability to taste food and wine so if you have a prolonged period without being able to taste or develop a sudden loss of taste that you can’t find a reason for, get it check out.
Drugs can also alter how we perceive flavours and can change the make-up of our saliva, especially antibiotics, blood pressure drugs and some cancer treatments. Medication can also make your mouth dry and this dehydration can mean flavours may not be detected as easily. Deficiency in some nutrients including vitamin B12 and zinc can also lead to a loss of taste. As we are more likely to develop medical problems and take more drugs as we age, then it does seem likely that ageing is a major factor in why our tastes change. The degree to which we lose our senses of smell and taste differs per person so you may be lucky and the good news is that it is very rare to lose them completely. I hope I shall be one of the lucky ones who can still enjoy a great wine in my dotage.
There would appear to be many other factors that can have an impact on our ability to taste wine and therefore potentially on our wine preferences. Smoking can mask the ability to smell and taste – but the good news is that if you give up smoking your sense of taste and smell is believed to return to normal within a couple of weeks. Air pollution generally is another factor which is why formal wine tastings tend to be in odour-free rooms with no food served. It is common knowledge that wine tastes differently on a plane or high in the mountains but is it the altitude's or air pressure’s effects on our ability to taste or on the wine that makes it different?
There are also socio-economic factors. Perhaps we tend to start off with sweeter more commercial style of wines because that’s all that the market offers us at the time (as per my Blue Nun/ Chianti reference above) or that style is all that we can afford at the time. I certainly gravitated from the more commercial style wines that I drank when I was younger to more sophisticated wines particularly as my career in corporate relationship management allowed me to entertain clients with and to buy for my personal consumption better wines as I developed a taste for the finer wines in life.
And that brings another factor into the equation – education and experience. As we expand our knowledge of wine, we generally look for more sophisticated and well-made wines with elegance and balance (read more about what makes a good wine). Nowadays we are lucky to have at our disposal a wider range of wine styles than ever before and wines are generally improving in quality. So keep an open mind and take advantage of the situation by trying lots of different wines. Just think, you may not yet have found your preferred style.
* Reference: Do Wine Consumer Preferences Change Over Time? Liz Thach, MW and Bus 305W Researchers, Sonoma State University
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Lindsay Cornelissen DipWSET is passionate about good quality wine and set up Wines With Attitude to share that passion with other wine lovers.